“They were here and within the past day at that.”
Zayne leaned off the side of the barn, having tried the door to the house, but finding nothing of interest when he stepped inside. The tables were bare, rooms made up neatly and everything left that made it seem like no one had been there at all. However, something about how the drawers were closed with clothing still hanging over the edges and dishes were left stacked on the counter made it seem like the travelers had left in a hurry.
Part of him wondered if they knew he was coming.
“Couldn’t have gotten far. They probably stopped when it got dark and if you’re saying they were here a day ago, they stopped once already.”
“Are you doing my job for me now?” he called back to the man atop his monstrosity of a horse.
Alekzander snorted. “Just doesn’t seem too hard. Following hoof prints and with that map she gave you, now that just makes this a joke.”
Zayne shook his head, climbing back onto his own horse and turning towards the road.
It hadn’t taken long for them to find the house once they rode from the east and into the west where the snow disappeared. Travel was easier and without such a chill in the air, he found that everything felt more normal. The map was marked with a few cities, Aldyra for one and others he assumed would be of some use to them.
A few days would go by before they reached the more southern area of the land and yet, that didn’t seem so far. Things were falling into place and with the map, it only made the pieces fall faster.
“Three horses, you said?”
Zayne frowned, glancing towards the barn. “I assumed. Norton, Aurora and one for the daughter is all I expected. But there are four stalls in the barn that have recently been occupied and four sets of tracks.”
“They’ve got a friend then.”
His heels tapped against his horse’s sides. “It won’t be an issue. Though, I should ask, can you shoot a gun?”
“Likely better than you, Crossvale.”
A sigh sounded from him. “I’m asking you sincerely.”
“I’m better with knives, throwing them mostly, but I can shoot well enough. Why’s that matter?” he drawled.
The pair turned towards the road, picking up a trot over the hoof prints.
“Should this turn into a firefight, I wanted to be sure you could defend yourself. I certainly won’t ask you to get involved, but I like knowing that I don’t have someone else to worry about.”
“Not used to having someone with you?” Alekzander asked, looking down at him from the back of his horse.
He shook his head. “No, I usually work alone.”
“Don’t have any murderous friends to bring with you? Thieves, killers and that sort?”
He laughed unsurely. “You seem to think I’d associate myself with that sort. My father would sooner have me beaten before letting me take that path. But, in answer to your question, no, I tend not to make friends.”
“Well, you have that nag of yours. I’m sure he keeps you company,” Alekzander answered gruffly.
“She,” Zayne corrected sharply. “We’ve been over this, haven’t we?”
“My mistake,” he muttered back.
His eyes narrowed, glancing up at the rider beside him. “Where did you get that beast anyway? I would’ve mistaken him for a cart horse without the tack.”
“He was a cart horse,” Alekzander hummed. “Why should his background make any difference to you? Not everyone is of such noble birth, Crossvale. Some of us actually have to work to get where we are.”
It wasn’t worth the argument, Zayne decided.
“Four,” he mumbled aloud. “Three, excluding the girl.”
“Do you always talk to yourself this much?”
“Quiet,” he snapped finally. “If we’re going to reach them before they get south, we need to hurry. It’s crucial but, it shouldn’t be a problem.”
Alekzander sighed. “Why’s that, Crossvale?”
“I haven’t failed a task given to me yet and I don’t plan on starting now.”
~ ~ ~ ~
“What made you change your mind?”
Aurora looked up at his brother’s voice, managing half a shrug before he even thought about the answer. He’d wondered the same himself for a while, but the actual answer evaded him. It was difficult, beyond just one reason, he thought, and the answer was something he didn’t really have the energy to explain.
“I’m not sure.”
“I’m surprised anything I said even got through that thick head of yours,” Silas replied, glancing sideways with a grin.
At least someone was happy with his decision, Aurora decided.
“Mister Silas, sir?”
“Silas is just fine, Sarafina.”
She nodded, pulling back on her trotting pony’s reins once she reached his side. “Thank you for helping my friend. Aurora’s grumpy sometimes, but he’s not so bad. You proberly know that being brothers and all. But…thank you.”
Aurora laughed. “I don’t think my brother is the only one helping me. Do you?”
“Oh,” she giggled. “And, Mister Silas, my name is just Fina.”
“Well, if you call me just Silas, I’ll call you just Fina, alright?”
The girl didn’t answer beyond a grin and another nod before she kicked her heels against her pony’s side to ride up to her father’s horse. Aurora smiled, watching her ride ahead of them and shaking his head once she turned around. Something about the innocence, her naivety, made him feel just as much uneasy as it did bring a smile to his face. Of course, there wasn’t any way for her to grasp the importance of the journey and she knew nothing of the Dravara or the shadows that still hung over his head.
Silas nudged him with an arm. “She’s a sweet girl. Certainly believes the two of you are thick as thieves, Evander.”
For a short while, the brothers were silent.
Silas’ words, specifically the ones spoken just before he left, still bothered him and he found that the fact Silas was willing to drop all of them, forget they had even been said, didn’t sit right in his gut. He’d given up his life, his every chance at having something, for Aurora’s benefit. It still was well beyond astounding for Aurora to consider.
“You never married.”
“I’m sorry?” Silas called back, frowning.
“You never had children,” Aurora continued, “or a wife for that matter. Was there never anyone that caught your eye? I remember you never had an issue with that when we were younger.”
“What?” he laughed. “Catching eyes?”
“No, I never married. And,” Silas paused, hesitating, “I should hope I don’t have any children. There was someone once, but that was a very long time ago. What about you? No one in the Dravara-“
“You’re quick to answer that. I would have thought that there could have been someone for you. Given the general population of the Dravara, there really wasn’t anyone?”
Aurora shook his head. “No, there wasn’t.”
“Have you ever considered you’re just an ugly son of a bit-“
“There are children here!” Daniel called back.
“Relax, you’re not the ugliest thing I’ve seen. Your looks were certainly enough for Daniel up there. I’m assuming you didn’t win him over with your shining personality, did you?”
Aurora glared back at him. “I-“
“Don’t look at me that way. I’m only joking,” Silas laughed, nudging him with an arm again softly.
A snort was the only answer he got from Aurora.
He stared ahead of them, watching a smile grow on Sarafina’s face as she looked up to chatter with her father. Something twisted inside of him, worry, he thought. Aurora sighed softly, leaning against the pommel of his saddle.
“Is there someone now?”
Aurora didn’t answer instead only shot him another glare.
“Alright, we’ll talk about something else. How do you feel?” Silas asked, motioning down to where the bullet wound was.
“In general or are you asking if I’m in pain? You probably won’t like the answer to the former if that’s what you’re asking me,” Aurora muttered.
Silas chewed at his lip. “Are you in pain then?”
He sat up in his saddle, reaching around to press against the area where the wound was, a habit by then. Frowning, he shook his head. “No, it’s not bad now.”
“That’s good,” Silas chimed. “You’re healing.”
“Taking a long vexing time at it,” Aurora huffed. “She should have aimed just a bit higher. It would have made things much easier for all of us.”
Silas didn’t answer, opening his mouth as if to respond, but instead he only stared down at his saddle. Again, things fell away to silence again until Aurora dared to clear his throat. “It was because of me, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean-“
“The reason you never settled down. Was it because of me?” he asked, not waiting for Silas to give an answer before continuing. “You devoted your life to keeping me out of this and then, when that…” He trailed off, unable to call it a failure. “When that didn’t work, you spent it on finding me. I’m sorry, Silas. Really, I am. You shouldn’t have-“
“Losing you would have ruined me,” Silas snapped suddenly. “Say it again, tell me you’re not worth saving, and I’ll knock you from that horse.”
“Evander, I’m serious.”
Aurora swallowed. “Just…tell me you didn’t turn any chances at happiness down because of me.”
For a moment, Silas fell silent. He looked up, smiling then and Aurora felt his heart sink the moment he spoke again. “You know me, always glad to give up everything for my little brother.”
He raised a hand. “No, I didn’t. I spent my time doing things for myself too, you know? There are people out there that need help, not just you. Evander, this goes beyond just you and me doing this, us doing this…it’s not just about us anymore.”
“Was it ever?”
“Yes,” Silas answered, “for a while. I think for everyone it starts out that way until they realize that others need help just as much as they do. And those people, the broken, the forgotten and the wounded, find some way to make sense of things.”
Aurora leaned back in his saddle. “And what of the people who are all three?”
Silas smiled back at him. “Well, you’ll fit right in.”
Shaking his head, Aurora looked ahead of him again to catch a shared grin between Sarafina and Daniel. He wanted to return it, but instead managed a nod. It was strange to believe that someone, anyone, could come to care about him. And yet, with the three of them he felt wanted, needed for the first time in his life since he was a child. Even if it meant the only people who were left to care about him consisted of an ex-officer of the Dravara, a six year old, and a brother he thought dead, Aurora was happy to take that.
Aurora looked up at her voice, watching as Sarafina slowed to allow the two brothers to catch up to her. She steered her pony between the two of them, riding up so she was the center of three.
“You can join our family too, Silas. Aurora says you had a family one time, but they’re gone now. He’s already part of my family now and you can be too. We call all be a family together.”
Silas laughed. “Why don’t we talk about this more when we get back to the cottage? I think both my brother and I would love to join you.”
She nodded, grinning from ear to ear. Aurora snorted. “You realize what you just agreed to, correct?”
“Don’t mind him. He’s just grouchy. Does Daniel have any say in who gets to join the family or are you deciding?”
“Papa doesn’t care. He’s lonely and I think he misses my mother. Aurora is kind of like a mother, a grouchy one, but he’s not a lady. He just wears a hat like one-“
“I do not,” Aurora protested. “This hat was a gift from a very good friend of mine. It’s not a lady hat and it comes from the capital in fact.”
“Where it was owned by a very flamboyant woman,” Daniel called back from the front of the group, “a rich one.”
Aurora wrinkled his nose, glaring around him. “You three are impossible, do you know that?”
Sarafina giggled fiercely, shrieking when he swatted at her falsely and digging her heels into her pony’s sides again. The little animal sprang off towards Daniel again with a snort and a sharp scream of a whinny.
“It’s just a joke!” she yelled back. “I like your silly hat.”
Aurora smiled, shaking his head as he looked ahead of him again.
The path was narrow, mostly unmarked save for the tramped down brush where travelers had been before. Silas had said it was safer, off the beaten roads and away from where they could possibly be seen. It was unlikely that anyone would recognize him, any of them for that matter, but Silas tried convincing him to leave the hat behind.
He hadn’t exactly been kind in refusing.
It was only to keep them safe, unrecognizable and able to blend in with the rest, Silas had said. Safety was a strange thing to think about and when his mind wandered to Sarafina and just how safe she was in the company of three wanted men, it worried him.
The smile on his face faded when he heard the tone in Silas’ voice drop.
Daniel circled back with his daughter in tow, riding back with the others and pulling up beside Silas. “Is something wrong?”
“Did you tell anyone about this?” Silas asked, staring off into the trees.
“There wasn’t anyone to tell. Neither of us has anyone we’d really call friends-“
“Speak for yourself,” Daniel scolded lightly. “But Aurora’s right. I didn’t tell anyone.”
Silas glanced back at them briefly before his hand rose, pointing at a ridgeline in the distance. Aurora squinted, standing in his stirrups and trying to focus on what his brother was motioning to.
“Who are they?” Daniel hissed shakily. “Resistance?”
Sarafina tilted her head, standing much in the same way Aurora had done. “I don’t see anyone.”
“Bounty hunters by my best guess,” Silas answered flatly.
Aurora leaned down towards the girl at his side. “Give me your hand, little fawn. You’re going to ride with your papa-“
“No, you keep her with you,” Daniel ordered.
“Why?” Aurora asked, looking up suddenly.
He sighed. “Daniel, I-“
“Don’t argue. Just keep her safe.”
Aurora he nodded and reached down for her pony’s reins, turning his horse and handing them off to Silas. He heard the pistols come free from the holsters of the men beside him. Sarafina settled down in the saddle in front of him.
He looked up. “I will. She’ll be safe.”
Sarafina braced her arms in front of her, looking up at Aurora. “What are we doing?”
“We are running, little fawn.”
He didn’t get the chance to answer before the first shot was fired.